The artist Rick Wilson lives and works in Edinburgh, Indiana, a small town whose central location between Indianapolis and Columbus was ideal for Wilson's most recent series of works. From 2014 to 2016 Wilson travelled to all 24 state parks in Indiana so he could paint them. When he finished, he had 70 paintings depicting an aspect of the beauty and enjoyment each park, in its own way, provides. He also had the makings of his latest exhibition, which he calls The Nature of Art: Painted Parks.
The show is also part of Indiana's Bicentennial Legacy Project and a timely celebration of the creation of the state's park system a century ago.
Wilson is currently touring the exhibition around the state. His next stop is Fort Wayne's Castle Gallery where he will take part in an artist reception on Thursday, July 21 from 6-10 p.m. He will also give a painting demonstration
Wilson's paintings reveal what visitors to the parks have already discovered: the rich mixture of Indiana's landscape.
"We have one of the best state park systems in the country," Wilson said. "I really wanted to celebrate Indiana's parks and get the word out that Indiana has a vast array of landscapes, from the beaches up north to the wetlands and prairies in Prophetstown. Lots of diversity and subject matter. I wanted to take two years so I could have two chances to visit all the parks in all the seasons."
Wilson's paintings don't merely show the diversity of the landscapes in the state; they convey the emotions of being in them without resorting to cliché. For his first painting in the series, Wilson and his wife visited Ouabache State Park outside Bluffton during a snowstorm. The finished painting is of bison grazing in the snow in the winter twilight. You can almost smell the snow and hear the bison blasting great puffs of air as they chew. While bison chomping away at grass may be a trite imagein a place like Yellowstone, the scene is not so familiar here.
The same is true of a painting he made of Turkey Run. The picture shows a couple hiking in the shadows in mid-day, dwarfed by walls of rock. You want to step into the space with them, before the light changes.
"Turkey Run is a fabulous park," he said. "The topography there is just amazing. Doesn't seem like you're in Indiana. Deep canyons and great paths and trails to walk."
The toboggan run at Pokagon State Park is featured. So are the green and white Lake Michigan waves boiling along the shoreline at Indiana Dunes State Park, with the black Chicago skyline on the horizon.
The idea of painting all of the state parks is one Wilson had carried with him for years. A lifelong artist at heart, Wilson didn't take on painting full time until 2003, when he was forced into early retirement.
"When I was terminated from my 29-year job - downsized - I decided to take that opportunity to pursue what I love, fine art," he said. "A friend of mine who happens to be an internationally acclaimed artist, C.W. Mundy, when he heard my plight he invited me to his studio and said 'whatever you're doing the next two weeks cancel it. You're going to be painting with me.' His famous words are 'it's easy to start a career, it's something else to maintain it.' He taught me what he calls the science of painting, design, brush work, color theory and values, all the elements that go into a painting, taught me the language of art, the business."
Ten years later Wilson was talking with another friend, Shaun Dingwerth, executive director of the Richmond Art Museum when the parks idea came up.
"He loved the idea," Wilson said. "He asked me to submit it to their board. This was in December of 2013. They voted on it in January, and in February I started painting."
It didn't take long for other groups to join in. A PBS film crew followed Wilson on some of his park visits and made a documentary about the project and the tie-in with the 100 year anniversary of the state park system. Cope Environmental Center in Centerville, Indiana, donated walnut from fallen trees so Wilson could build frames.
"My wife and I always loved visiting the state parks and we had always intended to see them all," Wilson said. "But life always got in the way."